Don't just scapegoat the teacher. Fix the whole, rotten system
South Africans had hardly recovered from controversy around claims of beach racism in the posh Clifton suburb of Cape Town when in the north west of the country an angry black parent reposted a WhatsApp photograph of a classroom showing four black children sitting at a corner table near the door.
They were separated from a much larger group of white children seated alongside each other in an extended chain of desks. The Grade R teacher had apparently sent the photo to parents, including the distressed black parent, to show how their children were settling into the first day of school. The social media reaction was swift. Outraged citizens cried racism while others defended the teacher as politicians descended on Die Laerskool Schweizer-Reneke in North West.
The public reaction defending the teacher’s actions was as distressing as it was predictable, going something like this: the separation was temporary; the photo does not capture what happened over the rest of the day. There were photos of other classrooms at the same school showing black and white children at the same desks interacting with each other. And the children were simply sitting with friends they knew; nothing racist about that.
But there was one set of arguments that merited another look: the children were merely being separated by language, presumably Setswana-speaking black children from Afrikaans-speaking white children. In other words, the children were being organised in order to facilitate mother-tongue education.
In general, there are also other educational grounds for separating children, such as academic readiness or different ability groups, though we know nothing, of course, about the cognitive levels of these young pupils. The question remains: are there educational grounds on which the children at Schweizer-Reneke could have been separated?
The straightforward answer is “no”. Throughout SA, and abroad, children enter classrooms with different language backgrounds at all levels of formal schooling. In the early grades, in particular, a more defensible educational strategy is to place children together precisely because of the advantages offered by multilingual learning. Young children, we know, learn languages much faster than adults. My godson, by the way, is an Afrikaans-speaking South African child who started preschool in English American classrooms and he became quickly competent in both languages within days.
When it comes to mixed-ability grouping the research is very clear – there is no definitive advantage to being in same-ability groups. Lower-ability children benefit greatly from mixed classes and highly intelligent children tend to learn independently anyway and are not disadvantaged in mixed-ability groups. The key factor is whether the teacher is competent to teach effectively in mixed-ability groups to the advantage of every child. Again, the point being made here is a general one about organising classrooms for effective learning and not necessarily applicable to this North West school.
So how does one explain the actions of the teacher in the Schweizer-Reneke primary school?
In the pages of my book, Knowledge in the Blood, this kind of teacher makes a regular appearance. She is earnest, dedicated and narrowly competent but largely unconscious of the social dimensions of learning. Like her conservative peers she works with an everyday racial common sense that makes it perfectly normal to put black children in one corner and white children in the centre of the classroom. I guarantee that when the storm broke, this teacher’s real anguish was “what on Earth did I do wrong?”
That is why suspending the teacher (rumour is, they suspended the wrong teacher) achieves little more than offering political relief, even physical safety, from the storm brewing at the school gates. That is why not transforming the school – the institutional conditions that made her actions routine – is where the department missed an opportunity for more effective long-term intervention in the education of all our children in this rural province.
Of course the teacher should be held accountable, but without corrective intervention she not only remains a victim of apartheid education and its legacy but her commitment to teaching young children is potentially lost.
What happened in this City of Sunflowers has much wider implications for single-language Afrikaans schools in rural areas. Unlike their middle-class and wealthy counterparts in the dense urban areas of Pretoria or Cape Town, the former white Afrikaans rural schools will come under mounting pressure to become dual-medium schools. With more and more black children from impoverished communities demanding access to the few schools offering a technically good-quality education in rural areas, this crisis makes the school even more vulnerable as far as Afrikaans-language education is concerned.
Ironically, the defence that the teacher was facilitating mother-tongue education is the very argument that will over time spell the demise of Afrikaans education at schools like Die Laerskool Schweizer-Reneke...